Herod I: The controversial king who transformed the Holy Land

Villain of the Christmas story, King Herod realized a bold new vision of a Roman Judaea.

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King Herod (seated) questions the Magi in this 14th-century mosaic from Saint Mark's Basilica, Venice.



Few figures in history have had such a controversial reputation as King Herod I of Judaea. In the Christian tradition, Herod is the villain in the Christmas story. The Gospel of Matthew recounts how the king orders the death of all baby boys following the birth of Jesus, an event called the Massacre of the Innocents. Calling this king “great” hardly seems fitting, given that atrocity.

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The Gospel of Matthew relates the king’s order to murder innocent children, as illustrated in this 13th-century altarpiece from Pistoia Cathedral, Italy.

To many scholars, however, Herod’s honorific is deserved. The king of the Judaeans for the last part of the first century B.C. was a skilled administrator. He created magnificent public building works across Judaea, most notably the colossal reconstruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Herod saved his people from famine in the mid-20s B.C. Although his reign was largely a time of peace and prosperity for Judaea, he was often treated with deep suspicion by his subjects. (See also: Herod's tomb discovered.)

Herod’s rule was an exquisite balancing act between appeasing his Roman masters and serving the needs of the Judaean people. The strain of this effort, plus the toxic environment of court intrigue, might have led Herod to become increasingly paranoid, cruel, and erratic toward the end of his life. Some historians believe his behavior during this later period made credible his ordering of the so-called Massacre of the Innocents despite a lack of historical evidence that such an atrocity ever occurred.

There is, however, one aspect of this colorful king on which all commentators agree: Flattered, cajoled, and used by Rome, Herod the Great was never able to completely win the hearts and minds of all his Jewish subjects. Rome, on the other hand, needed Herod as much as Herod needed Rome, whose culture and language the Jewish king had closely identified with all his life.

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King Herod’s legacy as an innovative builder was established by structures such as the imposing fortress of Masada nestled in the Judaean cliffs.

Herod’s rule over Judaea was continued under his son Herod Antipas—also infamous in Christian scripture as the king reigning during Jesus’ ministry and death. Herod the Great and his son became the New Testament’s symbol of corrupt earthly authority precisely because of their vital importance in the geopolitics of the day, and the key role they played in the emergence of Rome as the uncontested power in the eastern Mediterranean. (See also: How Jesus Christ was portrayed over 1,800 years.)

Rise to Power

At the beginning of the second century B.C., the Seleucid dynasty, now in decline, ruled the remnants of Alexander the Great’s eastern empire from its base in Syria. Farther south, the Egyptian dynasty that inherited Alexander’s holdings—the Ptolemies—was also beginning to crumble. Sandwiched between these two weakening powers, the Jews of Judaea seized their moment in the revolt of the Maccabees (circa 167-164 B.C.), briefly gaining independence from Seleucid rule and expanding their territories into lands under the Hasmonaean dynasty.

Having at first received the blessing of Rome, the independent Jewish kingdom increasingly felt the pressure of the Roman Republic’s expansion into the region. When Judaea became a vassal state of Rome in 63 B.C., the rulers found a willing collaborator in the form of Herod’s father, Antipater, who was made procurator—financial governor—of the new Roman province.

Divided over whether to fight the Romans or join them, civil war broke out among the Hasmonaean dynasty. Antipater’s son Herod appealed to Rome for aid, and was appointed king of Judaea in 40 B.C. At that time Jerusalem was occupied by Parthian troops, fighting on behalf of the anti-Roman Jews. With Roman help King Herod retook the city in 37 B.C., from where he developed excellent relations with high-ranking imperial figures, including Mark Antony.

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Cameo commemorating Augustus’ defeat of Herod’s ally Mark Antony, in 31 B.C.

This relationship could have led to Herod’s demise, as Antony tried to defeat Octavian (the future Emperor Augustus) but was himself defeated at the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C.

The triumphant Octavian demanded an audience with Herod. Fearing for his life, the Judaean king swore allegiance to Octavian, who confirmed Herod’s place as king. The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus writes that Octavian saw Herod’s faithfulness to Mark Antony as a good indicator that he would also be faithful to Rome.

In the eyes of his pious, Jewish subjects, however, Herod’s loyalty to the pagan Romans and admiration of Hellenistic style smacked of treachery. He had been put on the throne of Judaea only after considerable Jewish blood had been shed by Roman forces. Added to this, his lineage was far from pure. Herod’s family had converted to Judaism, but his father’s family was descended from Edom and his mother was Arabic. Worst of all, Herod rode roughshod over the customs and laws of the Jewish religion.

Crowning Achievements

Herod carefully cultivated his image as a sophisticate steeped in Greco-Roman culture. If the writers of the New Testament saw him as a tyrant, Herod saw himself as the paragon of refinement. He befriended leading Roman figures, showering them with invitations to his palaces in Jerusalem and Jericho. The succession of gentile nobles, philosophers, historians, poets, and playwrights flowing through the royal court rankled with the Sadducees and the Essenes, the principal Jewish sects concentrated in and around Jerusalem. In some ways, both groups were very different: The Sadducees represented the establishment, holding high religious office in the Temple, while the Essenes were an apocalyptic sect who wanted to see Judaism purified and reformed. Even so, both believed that the king was intentionally corrupting Jewish customs within his court.

According to the historian Nicholas of Damascus, one of Herod’s close friends, the king neglected affairs of state and the study of Jewish law to spend his time studying philosophy, rhetoric, and the history of Greece and Rome. State affairs were delegated to those officials with a Greek education. When the king did carry out religious acts, his pious critics remained unconvinced. Herod knew that ruling Judaea was impossible without the consent of the influential Pharisees, whom he carefully courted with various concessions. He was able to keep them just about on side, but he would never win their total trust or loyalty.

Herod's Fortress of Masada Set high on a cliff above a forbidding, lunar-like landscape, the ancient fortress of Masada looks as dramatic as the legend behind it.

Masada was built as a palace complex under Judean king Herod the Great, who reigned from 37 B.C. to 4 A.D. With a sophisticated water collection system that allowed it to sustain a thousand people in the isolated desert location, the complex was an engineering achievement as well as a classic example of the architecture of the early Roman Empire. But its greater significance is the symbolism it carries because of the legend associated with it.

According to the historian Josephus, Herod’s new cities irked the Jewish priestly class because their pagan monuments were insultingly close to Jerusalem. Built between 22 and 10 B.C., Herod named Caesarea Maritima for his patron, Caesar Augustus. It was constructed around an artificial harbor, protected with concrete breakwaters. This remarkable feat of engineering was the base of the Herodian fleet, which the king placed entirely at the service of Rome.

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Still in use today, the amphitheater dominated Caesarea Maritima. Named in honor of Caesar Augustus, the project gave Herod the chance to build a completely Roman city from scratch.

Caesarea’s temples were dedicated to the goddess Roma, and to Augustus himself. Every five years, Herod organized gladiatorial fights, dedicated to Augustus and his wife Livia, and where foreign dancers almost outnumbered the guests. Magnificent prizes were awarded to the winners, and rumors of wild, orgiastic parties circulated. The Jewish authorities looked on the excess with deep disapproval. They saw gladiatorial fighting as fundamentally immoral, believing that all human life belonged to the Most High.

If Caesarea—officially the Judaean capital from 6 B.C.—could be written off as a city for pagans, the holy city of Jerusalem was also threatened by the Romanizing instincts of their ruler. Tension focused on the Second Temple there, a building that symbolizes Herod’s complex relationship with his faith.

Begun in 20 B.C., Herod’s restoration program refaced the structure in white stone, and doubled the courtyard around it. Herod sought to exalt the Jewish faith, yet did so using Hellenic architects. The grandiose court was soon filled with moneylenders—an affront to pious Jews, who, according to Josephus and other Jewish writers of the time, were angered at the corrupt management of the Temple, an anger felt later by one Jesus of Nazareth: “My house shall be called the house of prayer,” Jesus cries in the Gospel of Matthew, “but ye have made it a den of thieves.”

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Today worshippers pray at the base of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the only remains of Herod’s expansion of the Second Temple, which was later destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70.

Perhaps the most spectacular religious scandal Herod the Great unleashed was the breaching of King David’s tomb in Bethlehem. Rumors had long circulated that the tomb believed to be David’s resting place hid treasure. Having spent large sums of money on the building of Caesarea, and perhaps seeing himself as the descendant of King David, Herod, it was said, secretly accompanied workmen to rob the tomb. The historian Josephus recounts how, on entering, they found that nothing remained of the riches. According to his account, Herod’s two guards were killed by “a flame that burst out upon those that went in,” and Herod fled the scene.

Modern historians argue that, in spite of such colorful instances of greed, Herod’s rule was remarkably constructive. For all the caviling of the priests, Herod’s diplomacy ensured the survival of Jewish identity at a turbulent moment in the eastern Mediterranean. His contribution to the material culture of Judaea was unprecedented. He built the fortresses of Masada and Herodium, as well as ensuring a water supply for Jerusalem. Using his contacts with Rome during the famine of 25-24 B.C., he arranged for the importation of Egyptian grain to feed his people. However, even sympathetic biographers of Herod acknowledge the violent behavior of his later years did much to sully his legacy.

The Mad King

Throughout his reign, King Herod’s domestic life was a source of growing scandal in Jerusalem. In addition to consorting with a large number of concubines, Herod is thought to have had a total of nine wives, and was sometimes married to more than one at the same time.

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“Rounded in the shape of a breast,” in the words of Josephus, Herod’s hilltop fortress of Herodium lies near Bethlehem. His tomb was finally found in the complex in 2007.

Palace intrigues and dynastic plots fueled a growing sense of paranoia in Herod. Some may have been genuine, but others were the fruit of Herod’s vivid imagination. The continual suspicion of a conspiracy launched by remnants of the Hasmonaean dynasty prompted a wave of bloodletting. Herod had many members of his own family killed during his frequent purges. Among his victims were his brother-in-law Aristobulus the Younger, whom he had previously named as high priest, as well as the former Hasmonaean king Hyrcanus II, who had ruled before him. His wife Mariamne also perished on his orders, and—most brutally of all—her two sons, Alexander and Aristobulus. He disinherited his oldest son, Antipater, borne to him by his first wife, Doris, only to execute him later.

Many civilians also ended their lives in the dungeons of the palace, victims of Herod’s systematic plan to eliminate anyone who showed allegiance to the previous Hasmonaean regime.

Tortured by insecurity, Herod’s desire for revenge became increasingly lurid. Josephus writes how, having entered his agonizing last illness, Herod ordered that after his death the key noblemen in the country should be corralled into the amphitheater in Jericho and slain with arrows. On his death in 4 B.C., the order was never carried out. There is no direct proof that the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem occurred either, although the story is not incredible given Herod’s mental state. His actions created an intriguing historical paradox: a ruler who could, on the one hand, create a stable, wealthy kingdom, yet still stir up feelings of distrust and disrespect among his subjects.

This story was originally published in December 2016 and has been updated.
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Home to 30,000 people, the city was divided into four districts: the upper city, housing the palace and theater, following the Hellenic model Herod so admired; the lower city, with its more modest neighborhoods and the great hippodrome; the north, a commercial neighborhood; and the east, containing Herod’s expansion of the Second Temple, his greatest contribution to the Jewish capital city.

City Wall Herod built up the fortifications on the western side of the city in 23 B.C. The new walls were 50 feet high and were guarded by three monumental towers.

Herod’s Palace Located to the south of the city, the complex included two luxurious halls adorned with marble and cedarwood, courtyards, colonnades, and gardens.

Public Plaza Alongside Herod’s palace, a public plaza or market in the style of a Roman forum was constructed and surrounded by three columned porticoes.

Antonia Tower Constructed in 37 B.C. and named by Herod in honor of Mark Antony, the fortress housed a Roman garrison and was the Praetorian Guard’s headquarters.

Temple In 20 B.C. Herod began renovating the old Temple that had been built in the sixth century B.C. following the return of the Jewish exiles from Babylon.

Esplanade Situated on Mount Moriah, this commercial space, some 1,500 feet in length, was flanked with columns. It was open to both Jews and Gentiles.

Wall The great wall of Herod’s Temple was built with giant blocks of stone. The lower section of the Western Wall is all that remains today.

Basilica This building situated to the south of the Temple esplanade may have been the meeting place of the Sanhedrin—the supreme Jewish council.

Theater A lover of classical culture, Herod built a large theater in the upper part of the city where plays by Greek and Latin writers were performed.

Hippodrome Following the classical urban model a great hippodrome was erected in the lower zone of the city, where chariot-racing events took place.


Jerusalem: Herod’s Dream City

Herod wanted to convert Judaea into the greatest kingdom in the east. A key part of his plan was the transformation of Jerusalem, whose walls he extended, and whose public areas he filled with monumental buildings.